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JOHNNY AND THE STRAY HEARTS
by Ashok Kalpathy
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with an up-and-coming alternative folk band who have made their name known over the last four years around the city, and around the province. Calgary’s own Johnny and the Stray Hearts have been performing at various venues and cafes in and around Calgary since 2016, and have released a couple of their demos on their YouTube channel. I was able to speak with Johnny Munro (the namesake leader of the band), and Marlo Hepburn (bassist) about the group’s formation, their journey as folk artists, and what’s in store for them in the future.
The group itself consists of seven members; however, throughout their four-year career as musicians, the collective rarely has time to make it all into one show due to their demanding schedules. Yet, they always have each other’s backs when needed. For example, when Johnny was on his way to a show and one of the female vocalists couldn’t make it, he quickly called up his friend Amalia Brown and she was able to come through and perform. That’s how Amalia became a part of the collective, and this type of synergy is what makes Johnny and the Stray Hearts so appealing.
Marlo Hepburn’s journey into music and folk was through her local church where she met Johnny. In the church, she was heavily active in the youth band where she was a singer. One day, her group leader brought over a bass guitar to her and asked her to learn and play. She was able to learn extremely quickly, and she said in her own words "if you have a good sense of rhythm, you can pick up the bass pretty easily." At that time, Marle’s bass-playing was solely limited to the church and she didn’t extend it beyond. She had stopped playing in high school, and the bass became a thing of the past for her at that moment. That was until she reconnected with Johnny and was asked a question by him: “Do you play any instruments?” to which she replied “Umm, I used to play the bass.” From that point on, Marlo began jamming with Johnny and the rest of the Stray Hearts; and thus, her journey into the band began.
When asked how Marlo and Johnny used to consistently jam together, it was actually through Marlo’s help when Johnny was in need that got them to come together and focus on music. Johnny had suffered an injury, and he was living by the University of Calgary where Marlo was studying. During her spare time (or when she thought her classes were too boring), she would come over and help Johnny by bringing him food and helping him rest as his injury healed. During this time, they would jam out together and create songs that would ultimately form the base of the Stray Hearts. Johnny and Marlo’s influences stem from a variety of music they grew up listening to, such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Additionally, they both share a common fan crush for Harry Styles.
The other members of the collective consist of Kylie Poppe (vocalist), Amalia Brown (vocalist), Kaelin Kraft (fiddle), Evan Buzan (electric guitar) and Jonas Cornelson (percussion). With a group as big as seven members, it would be difficult to imagine how they are able to focus and create as a cohesive group. But that’s no problem for them, as they have their debut album coming out this fall titled “The Road”. This is an intimate project focusing on their personal experiences as musicians that discusses heartache and community. A “folk opera” as Johnny calls it, “The Road” encompasses all the different feelings and sounds you want in a collective like Johnny and the Stray Hearts. You can expect it to be honest, passionate, and raw. Make sure to listen to it this fall.
by Raven Craig
For fans of: City and Colour, Ray Lamontangue, The Lumineers
Seclusion is a feeling that by now, I’m sure anyone and everyone can describe in detail. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, claustrophobic at the same time as exposing. Feeling as though you’re the only tiny naked human alive in elements far greater and more severe than yourself. I’m sure to many, the thought of “seclusion and isolation" is a frightening thought, but nestled in the sounds of the Alberta folk project “Evening Birds” lies the notion that seclusion may actually be a feeling we could come to embrace.
The currently one man project is born from western Alberta, and vividly paints a daydream of driving past rocky mountains, icy rivers, and cotton candy skies. Echoed acoustics and soft, haunting lyrics offer nostalgia to older folk songs crafted perfectly for solo road trips through a mountain range, but something about Kendall Rodney Bilans voice speaks a certain youthful language that we find in other genres of contemporary music (does it ruin all integrity if I use the word “heart throb"?).
The project relies on the single creators’ complex vocal tones to convey messages of longing, isolation, heartbreak, infatuation and redemption with the aid of a flavourful acoustic guitar to envelope and deliver the stories being told.
Peppered throughout, you may hear a distant howl of an electric guitar or background vocals which guide us through this rocky mountain narrative. But they do so without ever diminishing the image of sitting in a secluded log cabin with no one around but Kendall being backed by a band made up of a crackling fireplace and cold winter winds blowing outside.
This concept is most evident in my personal favourite song, which shares the project's same name, “Evening Birds". Kendall truly sings from the heart in harmony with a variety of layered instruments, which add the texture necessary to keep listeners afloat in case they’re not quite ready to completely submerge into introspection. But I might say an insincere “good luck” avoiding catching a glimpse of self reflection for the duration of this album.
Elegantly titled “Vol. 1”, the debut album is a lyric heavy collection of songs overflowing with imagery of the natural world which was inspired by geography all throughout Western Canada; from the winding western path to Golden, B.C., to the outskirts of Calgary where the seams of city lights begin to fray near Bragg Creek.
Listen to our picks from "Vol. 1" on our May 2020 Spotify playlist
Picture if Bob Ross's “Joy of Painting" had background music, except he was painting ghostly figures in a campfire lit forest instead of happy trees, and that’s where this project will take you.
I could see Evening Birds, and Vol. 1 specifically, having full potential in becoming deeply personal music for someone. The duality of tone that emerges when Kendall sings of heartbreak and healing from the natural world could transition through many phases of life; an album you revisit with the changing seasons to give you new inspiration from old comforts.
I can imagine that if the project were born a decade and a half earlier, that tracks from the album would’ve found themselves at home amongst older folk tunes and Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack for the film “Into the Wild"; depicting the inward journey of exploring the outward world.
“Vol. 1” is expected to be joined by two more volumes containing similar tones and themes, which are currently in early stages of recording. Kendall says he'd planned to take the summer of 2020 to work on the follow up albums, regardless of festival cancellations.
In the meantime, to get your fix of Evening Birds, you can follow it on Instagram via @eveningbirds, check out their website at eveningbirdsmusic.com, and of course search Evening Birds on Spotify to drown yourself in the sombre tunes on your next cry-and-drive to the grocery store (you’ll feel better after, I promise).
With fingers crossed, and a little help from the music gods, Evening Birds will be gracing the stages of Western Canada in the summer of 2021 with more beautiful lyrics, acoustic melodies, and rocky mountain skylines painted in our heads.
Listen to Evening Birds, as well as the rest of this month's artists on our Spotify playlist
by Mark Janz
For fans of: Dierks Bentley, Old Dominion, Bon Jovi
Left to right: Brad Fleischer, Ryan Fleischer
Photo by Rod Sanchez
Do you ever wonder what it would be like to mix a Pilsner with Jack Daniel’s? Pilsner brings a smoothness of the cold beer in a country song, while Jack Daniel’s comes crashing in with the grit of American arena rock. Even if you don’t indulge in alcohol, you can still taste the resulting cocktail: the blue collar, heartland sound of Flaysher. You get songs of life, love, and most importantly, songs to shout along with. Consisting of Brad Fleischer (guitar and lead vocals), Ryan Fleischer (bass and backing vocals), and Brandon Alberts (drums), Flaysher are a group of small town boys with their sights set for the international spotlight.
Flaysher, previously known as Storm, came roaring out of Airdrie more than 8 years ago. The band changed their name to Flaysher for the release of their 2016 EP “Starting Over,” and have begun making that name a hard driven boot print in the country music scene. It can be difficult to call this power trio any one thing, though. In fact, the boys take far more cues than those of just country artists. “[we’re] all over the map!” says vocalist Brad. Bob Seger, Morgan Wallen, Bon Jovi, Dierks Bentley, and Meat Loaf fans can all find a place to shake hands on the band’s EP “Starting Over.”
Listen to "Flat Broke Famous" on our April 2020 playlist on Spotify
As life goes on, and 2016 comes and goes, the band’s hungry songwriters were ready to turn the page to a new chapter of the same classic book. On March 27th, the band pushed out their brand new single “Flat Broke Famous,” and it shimmers with all the lustre of your fake Ray-Bans and the priceless memories that you wore them for. “It’s [the song] for the couple that forgets the rest of the world exists. With no fear of judgement, and no regrets. Live free, turn some heads, and let ‘em talk” the band says. The song emits the sparkle of modern country, but does not leave the boys’ arena rock reflexes in the dust by any means. “Flat Broke Famous” could without a doubt be one of the summer of 2020’s anthems. It begs to be played on a cheap speed boat out on Pigeon Lake. It screams to accompany you as you drive your old Silverado down 17th ave. “Flat Broke Famous” could inspire drunken 20-something choirs to ring out of the beer gardens and the Cowboys tent this Stampede.
This song is so cohesive with the band’s mission on the stage: “share a great memory with as many people as possible, and have them all feel like they are where they're meant to be.” Yes, “Flat Broke Famous” reminds us of some of the less glamorous things we all do, but it shows us that it’s okay, as long as we’re loving our lives and the people we’re with. I can guarantee that Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen would be very proud of Brad, Ryan, and Brandon for that message. The band are certainly not far off from the arena-packing world of their heroes, as they’ve already graced the Coca-Cola Stage at the Calgary Stampede in 2017, as well as the opening ceremonies of the Alberta Summer Games.
“We just want to write songs that make people think, or smile, or feel something strong. We also love writing optimistic songs that put the listener in a good headspace to kick some ass in life.” Flaysher are certainly gearing up to kick some ass in their lives, as plans to release more songs are not far away.